Ethics for a Digital Age

by Bastiaan Vanacker (Volume editor) Don Heider (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook XII, 239 Pages
Series: Digital Formations, Volume 104


Thematically organized around three of the most pressing ethical issues of the digital age (shifting of professional norms, moderating offensive content, and privacy), this volume offers a window into some of the hot-button ethical issues facing a society where digital has become the new normal. Straddling an applied ethical and theoretical approach, the research represented not only reflects on how our ethical frameworks have been changed and challenged by digital technology, but also provides insights for those confronted with specific ethical dilemmas related to digital technology. With contributions from established experts and up-and-coming scholars alike, this book cuts across disciplines and with appeal to communication scholars, philosophers, and anyone with an interest in ethics and technology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Ethics for a Digital Age
  • Part I: Shifting Professional Norms in a Digital Age
  • 1. Emerging Genres of Science Communication and Their Ethical Exigencies
  • 2. Constrained Independence: Digital Branded Content in Sports through the Lens of Journalism Ethics
  • 3. The Emerging Uses of Ethical Principles in Journalist’s Privilege Law
  • 4. Corporate Responsibility in the Videogames Industry: Mapping the Territory
  • Part II: Managing Norm Violators in Digital Spaces
  • 5. Opening the Marketplace: A Case for the Protection of Anonymous Online Comments
  • 6. Considering and Constraining the Power of Content Hosts
  • 7. Hashtags and Hate Speech: The Legal and Ethical Responsibilities of Social Media Companies to Manage Content Online
  • 8. When the Inmates Run the Asylum: Grief Play in the Virtual Panopticon of Second Life
  • Part III: Control, Power and Technology
  • 9. The Ethics of Engagement: Considering Digital Ethics in a Critical Participatory Action Research Project with Urban Youth
  • 10. From Using to Sharing: A Story of Shifting Fault Lines in Privacy and Data Protection Discourse
  • 11. Privacy Rights and Data Brokers: The Ethics of a Targeted Surveillance Regime
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →


Ethics for a Digital Age


The chapters in this book represent a selection of research presented at the 2013 and 2014 Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics organized by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago. By bringing together scholars from a diverse range of disciplines, this volume contributes to the growing body of work on digital ethics.

The term “digital ethics” might appear obsolete in an era when the digital has become ubiquitous. For example, Ad Age’s 2015 Advertising Digital Conference rebranded itself by crossing out the word “digital” and adding “it’s all digital now” to the conference poster. As the organizers wrote: “Digital is no longer the next big thing, it’s everything. Or, is it anything? Does the word ‘digital’ even deserve a spot in the next agenda for this dynamic industry?” We could ask the same question: “If ‘digital’ is indeed everything and everywhere, does the word ‘digital’ even deserve a spot as an area of specialization on the agenda of applied ethicists?”

Indeed, no applied ethicist can afford to ignore questions raised by digital technology. Whether one studies ethical issues in journalism, education, health care, politics, or the environment, questions linked to the recent development in information and communication technologies will have to be confronted. As these applied ethicists from various domains are taking on questions of a digital nature at an increasing rate, is there even a need for a “digital ethics” proper? Or will only abstract meta-ethical questions remain to challenge the digital ethicist? Much the same way the natural sciences have subsumed and answered many of the questions that traditionally had belonged to philosophy, the study of digital ethics might find itself usurped by the other domains of applied ethics.

The term “digital ethics” also implies that there is an ethical system informed by digital technology that is different from, for example, “analogue ethics.” But why would the mere medium of communication require a different ethical analysis, let alone a whole new ethic? For example, does it matter ← vii | viii → whether bullying is done in person or via social media in order to determine it is ethically wrong? In both instances, the intention is to inflict unjustifiable harm upon another human being, which almost all ethical systems would agree is wrong. There are, it appears, sufficient reasons to retire the concept of “digital ethics” and instead deal with ethical questions raised by digital technologies in their relevant domains.

We acknowledge this criticism towards the term “digital ethics” but nevertheless still maintain that for the time being it merits academic attention. We believe that, as Luciano Floridi (2014) has argued, the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) does indeed necessitate a revision of our ethics in order to deal with the challenges of this new world. Moreover, few would deny that for the applied ethicist, digital technologies have created a new set of dilemmas. Even those challenging the notion that digital technologies necessitate a radical rethinking of the foundations of our ethics will admit that the development of these technologies has led to a set of unique problems. For communication scholars, for example, these issues are tied to the well-known characteristics of digital media: they allow information to be copied and shared more easily, they are accessible to everyone and therefore global in scope, they are instantaneous, and they allow their users to conceal their identity to a certain degree. These features have led to a number of ethical issues emerging in a variety of contexts that provide the organizational structure of this book. We believe that these overarching themes identified here tend to return in different emanations wherever digital technologies are introduced. Therefore, even those who don’t believe that digital technologies necessitate a rethinking of our ethics will find valuable insights in this volume.

Part I: Shifting Professional Norms in a Digital Age

The first section of this book groups four essays that question and explore how digital technologies have challenged and changed professional and institutional norms. In “Emerging Genres of Science Communication and Their Ethical Exigencies,” Ashley Rose Kelly explores how hacker scientists use and transform established modes of science communication. The “amateur” scientists she studies were responsible for successfully collecting radiation contamination readings following the Fukishama nuclear disaster in 2011. Kelly reveals how new genres of online science communication based on access and egalitarianism can alter the ethical commitments of the science community.

Kathleen Culver’s and Michael Mirer’s “Constrained Independence: Digital Branded Content in Sports through the Lens of Journalism Ethics” also ← viii | ix → explores how the norms of a professional group are challenged by its digital counterparts. Their in-depth interviews with 12 former sport journalists who now produce branded content for the web sites of sport franchises reveal that these reporters experience their new work as a form of constrained journalism, subjected to slightly different norms than those they were exposed to previously.

Jason Shepard’s article “The Emerging Uses of Ethical Principles in Journalist’s Privilege Law” deals with journalism ethics as well, as he investigates how courts have used adherence to the ethical norms of journalism as a criterion to determine whether legal protections traditionally reserved for journalists can be extended to bloggers. Should courts protect anyone who performs more or less as a journalist, or should more rigorous criteria be applied to qualify for legal privileges? Shepard warns against the dangerous consequences of the latter option.

In “Corporate Responsibility in the Videogames Industry: Mapping the Territory,” Thorsten Busch explores how the videogame industry is facing a set of unique challenges, partly because of the nature of its products and audiences. While traditional cultural industries have received ample attention from corporate responsibility scholars, the games industry has avoided this type of scrutiny so far. To a careful reader, Busch’s article exposes the similarities and differences between this industry and more traditional cultural industries when it comes to fulfilling their ethical obligations towards their stakeholders.

Part II: Managing Norm Violators in Digital Spaces

Since their inception, digital communities have been plagued by participants engaging in norm-violating behavior and hate speech. These flamers, griefers, trolls, extremists, and others of their ilk present a dilemma for moderators and hosts. If given free rein, they might render a digital space toxic and uninviting to others, but taking action against them might lead to arbitrary restrictions on unpopular speech. And if one restricts speech, who gets to set the rules? Who gets to enforce these rules? How can this process be conducted in a fair manner? These questions were catapulted to prominence by Julian Dibbell’s 1993 article, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” but are still relevant today.

In “Opening the Marketplace: A Case for the Protection of Anonymous Online Comments,” J. David Wolfgang argues that newspapers’ online editors are too quick to ban anonymous comments for the reason that they lower the level of discourse. Using free speech theories, Wolfgang argues for a more ← ix | x → nuanced way to address this problem than silencing anonymous speech categorically.

Both Jonathan Peters (“Considering and Constraining the Power of Content Hosts”) and Caitlin Ring Carlson (“Hashtags and Hate Speech: The Legal and Ethical Responsibilities of Social Media Companies to Manage Content Online”) address how private companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have become de-facto censors of the Internet and carry the heavy responsibility of balancing the free flow of information with providing spaces that are inclusive and diverse. Since these companies are not government actors, they are not bound by the free speech provisions of the First Amendment. Relying on the notion of corporate social responsibility, Caitlin Ring Carlson advocates a model in which social media companies minimize harm caused by exposure to hate speech by their users and are transparent about the procedures followed to take action against those violating the terms of service agreement.

Transparency is also front and center in Peters’ proposal for how third party platforms should deal with offensive content. Expanding on guidelines developed by the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, he focuses on the procedures third-party platforms should follow when making decisions about content removal. Focusing more on the process of the content removal and less on the types of content that should be targeted for sanctions, his chapter provides a counterpoint to Ring’s more normative approach.

All three of this section’s chapters mentioned so far assume that top-down decisions about inappropriate content have to be made with extreme care and should follow clear rules in order to avoid abuses of power. However, in “When the Inmates Run the Asylum: Grief Play in the Virtual Panopticon of Second Life,” Burcu S. Bakioğlu argues that power asymmetries can also develop when these decisions are made by the digital community itself in a bottom-up manner. Using Second Life as an example, she shows how decentralized peer monitoring can exacerbate conflicts and lead to abuses.

Part III: Control, Power and Technology

In the final section of this book, three authors remind us that technology is not neutral but has the potential to alter existing power relationships. Despite the promise of empowerment that digital technologies carry, they can also magnify existing power inequalities in society. Registering and/or ← x | xi → challenging these power inequalities is the focus of the research presented in this section.

Drawing on her experience conducting ethnographic research on digital and mobile media use among young people of color and from new immigrant communities, Lynn Schofield Clark shows how digital technology can be used in critical participatory action research. In her research ethics chapter “The Ethics of Engagement: Considering Digital Ethics in a Critical Participatory Action Research Project with Urban Youth,” she advocates for an ethnographic ethics of engagement that explores how digital media can be leveraged by urban youth in their communities. Rather than acting as neutral observers with a notepad who enter the lives of their subjects in a detached manner, Clark sees a role—and ethical obligation—for ethnographic researchers to act as catalysts for change.

Annette Markham and Jan Fernback close this volume out with two essays on privacy. In “From Using to Sharing: A Story of Shifting Fault Lines in Privacy and Data Protection Discourse,” Markham traces the change in discourse regarding privacy over the last 20 years. Whereas in the earlier days of the Internet the onus to safeguard privacy was upon corporations or the state, contemporary discourse on online privacy reflects a belief that it is ultimately the individual who is responsible for protecting her privacy. Markham argues that this shift in language also shifts “the terrain of public and political action as well as large-scale policies and law.”

Fernback’s essay can be seen as an illustration of this process in action. In “Privacy Rights and Data Brokers: The Ethics of a Targeted Surveillance Regime,” she describes how data brokers have set up a regime of monitoring and surveillance that has the potential to inflict real (privacy) harm on individuals. Using insights from Kantian ethics as well as from Foucault, she develops an ethics checklist for information privacy that could inspire lawmakers designing policies to protect consumer privacy.

Together, these three sections ask the reader to reflect on how this digital age shifts our norms and ethics, how we will deal with those who do not abide by them, and how these shifts affect the power relations in our society. Whether one believes in digital ethics as a distinct area of applied philosophy or not, these issues are likely to be confronted by anyone addressing questions of right and wrong in today’s society. We may not need a digital ethics, but we most certainly need ethics for a digital age.

Bastiaan Vanacker and Don Heider ← xi | xii →


Dibbell, J. (1993, December 23). A rape in cyberspace: Or, how an evil clown, a Haitian trickster spirit, two wizards, and a cast of dozens turned a database into a society. The Village Voice, 36–42. Retrieved from http://www.juliandibbell.com/articles/a-rape-in-cyberspace/

Floridi, L. (2014). The 4th revolution. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.


XII, 239
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Ethic Digital technology communication
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XII, 239 pp.

Biographical notes

Bastiaan Vanacker (Volume editor) Don Heider (Volume editor)

Bastiaan Vanacker (PhD, University of Minnesota) is an Associate Professor at the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago, where he also serves as the Program Director for the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy. Don Heider (PhD., University of Colorado) is a Professor in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago. He is the founding dean of the School, where he also helped found the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy. He is the author and editor of six books, and a former journalist who won six Emmy awards for his work.


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